Moving Forward When the Way Ahead is Unclear

I’ve been going through some old photo albums, trying to do a bit of decluttering as well as separating the “treasures” from the Oh-my-God-why-did-I-keep-this? pictures. 

Perhaps you can relate. 

One of the largest photo albums documents a trip our family took to Peru more than 20 years ago. (Some of the photos are inspiring new artwork that I’m working on.)

As I sorted through the pictures, one photo in particular sparked a significant memory for me. It was the picture of the front of a colorful canoe, the bow facing into absolute nothingness.

Seeing the photograph transported me back to a life lesson I learned on the Tambopata River, a tributary of the Amazon. 

Three days before the picture was taken, our family of four had arrived by motorized canoe at the Posada Amazonas, a jungle lodge in the heart of the Amazon rain forest. The remote open-air lodge is owned by the Ese Eja indigenous community and had no electricity and no hot water, but it was an amazing base to experience the jungle that surrounds it.

During the day, our excursions into the tropical forest were led by proud, enthusiastic native guides who educated us about the region, home to more than 4,000 species of birds, 60 species of reptiles, and an incredible diversity of insects, trees, and plants. 

Along the winding trails beneath the jungle canopy, we mingled with monkeys, tropical birds of all colors, bugs the size of small birds, the occasional snake, and animals we had never seen before. At night, guests from all over the world told tales of their adventures over tasty native dishes and delicious beverages in the thatched roof dining area lit by flickering lanterns.

After dinner, as the gas lights of the lodge were extinguished and darkness descended, we retreated to our sleeping quarters, where one “wall” was completely open to the jungle. We settled under our mosquito nets, on sheets wet from the humidity. Sleep was elusive as we listened to the unnerving sounds of animal footsteps of all sizes and patterns scampering across the wooden floors. 

At 5:00 in the morning on our final day, we left the security of the lodge in dense fog and drizzling rain. In the pre-dawn darkness, we could only see as far as our dimly lit head lamps revealed of the trail ahead.

Eventually, we began to make out the shape of a narrow canoe moored along the bank as we approached the river. Our guide passed us off to the canoe helmsman with a few quiet words in Spanish and hand motions instructing us to sit on the rickety boards bracing the sides of the canoe. 

We shoved off from the shore and moved seemingly blindly into the impenetrable fog and early morning darkness. There were no lights on the boat.

Our helmsman couldn’t possibly have seen what was in front of him or around us. Yet he knew from experience and intuition every turn in the river that no doubt he’d been traversing since he was a boy. 

Without question, we blindly trusted the complete stranger to safely navigate the small boat through the caiman and piranha-infested waters and deliver us to the little port two hours down river. 

Sitting in the canoe beside my husband and two children, I tried to quell my rising fear as I silently debated whether we’d be eaten first by the piranhas with theira razor-sharp teeth or the caimans if the boat hit a log and capsized. 

As the sun came up, the fog still enveloped us, but at least we could see in a narrow ark around the canoe, even if we couldn’t see the riverbanks. It was a small comfort, but a welcome one.

Thinking back on that experience now, I reflect on how many times we each have to move forward without being certain of what lies beyond the bend. 

It’s easy to become paralyzed by fear, or indecision, or inexperience. But sometimes circumstances dictate that small forward motion is better than no motion at all.

I’m reminded of the Napoleon Hill quote: Do not wait; the time will never be 'just right.' Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.

As someone who’s prone to overthinking just about everything, those words ring true. They give me courage to take the next small steps wherever they may lead and have faith that “better tools” will be found as I go along.

Looking back on my experience in the canoe, I remember how we had to move ahead with (literally) blind faith. 

The experience also gives me the perspective that no matter what happens moving forward, it’s probably not going to involve piranhas and man-eating caiman!